Back to basics

Chico toolmaker leads a local renaissance of organic gardening

Organic gardener David Grau, who’s been teaching the craft for three decades, demonstrates how to use the wheel hoe he invented and manufactures.

Organic gardener David Grau, who’s been teaching the craft for three decades, demonstrates how to use the wheel hoe he invented and manufactures.


Ag school: For more info on the organic gardening series, visit

David Grau’s garden doesn’t look like much. Right now it’s a drab collage of grayish brown earth with specks of green that, of course, are pretty typical of a garden during the cold winter months.

But looks are deceiving.

Grau—a 30-year resident of Chico and a long-time gardening instructor—is currently harvesting several meals’ worth of vegetables, including potatoes, carrots, beets, kale, broccoli and spinach. And that’s only half of what is ready to be plucked from his garden, most of which was planted last summer.

“By winter they sort of stand there and wait for you to harvest them,” Grau said with a sly grin.

“Expanding the growing season” is a term that gets bandied about generously by Grau and other instructors involved in the Organic Gardening Class, the six-week series of classes he has put together in Chico beginning Jan. 24. Last year, the series at the Chico Grange brought in the neighborhood of 180 participants during a single session, an indicator—albeit a modest one—that the public’s attitude is changing as big-farm practices become more transparent through recent documentaries and books.

“I believe organic gardening is the hub of the social transformation that we as humans need to make in order to solve the environmental crisis,” Grau said matter-of-factly.

The ironic thing is that organic gardening is not some new phenomenon. Publications—like the aptly titled Organic Gardening magazine—have been around since World War II. And as Grau points out, over thousands of years of agriculture, it’s been only in the past 100 years that chemicals have become part of the food chain.

Calling Grau a hippie would be … well, fair game. The bespectacled 59-year-old had stints at UC Davis and UC Berkeley in the late-’60s and early-’70s, studying agriculture before finally making the move to Chico in 1977 and co-founding the local farmers’ market. And while he would eventually head down an entirely different path—receiving a master’s in psychology from Chico State (and working as a family therapist for the better part of a decade)—Grau has been teaching and practicing organic gardening since 1971.

Seeing Grau in his modest workshop off Orange Street, one might never guess he’s a longtime activist and farmer. The space is filled with equipment for drilling, cutting and bending steel—a huge contrast to the living environment of his home garden. It was 20 years ago that he created the wheel hoe, a man-operated tool used for weeding and tilling soil.

The steel garden tool—which is pushed like a wheelbarrow—is based on a similar contraption the Chico farmer purchased from Europe in the late-’70s. Last year Grau’s Valley Oak Tool Co. sold 250 of them. Local farming collective GRUB has two, and Grau says he’s sold quite a few in Canada and New England. His goal in 2010 is to manufacture around 1,000—at about $315 a pop, business may be looking up, though irony is not lost on Grau.

“My main complaint [about the state of food production in the United States] is industrialization,” he said. “But the process to get to better practices is through industrialization. It’s taught me some humility.”

David Grau makes good use of the space at his home near Lower Bidwell Park. His winter garden (pictured here in September) includes up to a dozen varieties of produce, such as kale, broccoli, carrots and potatoes, grown in both the front and back yard.


It’s no secret that the days of the small family farm are long gone, squeezed out by massive assembly-line factories where production and profit trump quality and health. The 2008 documentary Food Inc. and, more recently, author Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals are the latest in a long line of films and books shedding more light on the dark practices of America’s industrialized food system.

Grau points out that, prior to industrialization, approximately 90 percent of the population was involved in agriculture, a number that has fallen to a paltry 2 percent.

“The reason I teach the class is because we need millions of people to be involved in producing food,” he said.

Mary Berglund, one of the speakers during this year’s series, rarely goes to the grocery store. The mother of five moved to a one-acre plot in 2003, and the garden has produced most of the family’s food ever since. Berglund’s plot currently boasts some 60 fruit trees, onions, soy beans and berries, in addition to a dozen chickens that produce about a dozen eggs per day.

“I think this is a dying art—people ought to know how to do this,” Berglund said. “We’re the only species that doesn’t know how to feed itself, and that’s disturbing to me.”

It’s obvious that the classes reach a lot of people, and this year Grau will act as the liaison between attendees and presenters to make the idea of growing your own food less intimidating.

The point of his classes, he says, is simple—to get more people to successfully grow their own food using safe practices.

“It’s taken a crisis to make [organic gardening] acceptable. Now the public knows something is extremely wrong,” Grau said. “The wonderful thing about gardening is that you’re always learning.”